Who’s put on the defensive more often, politicians, CEOs — or safety and health managers?

A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review described how everyone from politicians to athletes to executives is schooled these days in the art of dancing and dodging around media questions. Don’t you think safety and health pros should be privy to this training, too?

If up to 70 percent of CEOs have been taught “27 ways to avoid the question and 27 ways to say no comment,” as one PR executive says, safety and health pros should be able to avail themselves of some professional advice on how to answer questions like:

“What the hell happened?”

“Don’t we have a good enough safety record already?”

“What’s the fastest way to get to zero injuries?”

“Our company is no worse than any other, right?”

OK, communication coaching is a little pricey. But for $4,000 to $10,000 a day, media coaches show you how to take control of a line of questioning, how to research your questioners, rehearse your sound bites at home, develop a plan and set goals for the exchange, shape “takeaways,” draft bullet points, hammer home your bottom line message, narrow your focus, stay on track, and even follow up by asking friends for feedback.

But instead of fencing with reporters, which safety and health pros rarely do, let’s focus the coaching on how to handle hostile plant managers, exacting VPs, bewildered owners, cost-conscious accountants and heat-seeking attorneys.

Instead of learning how to turn an interview into a commercial, the focus would be on making your points, or at least surviving, through budget meetings, cross-examinations, and debriefings.

In this article, we examine how to avoid slipping, tripping and falling over your own words when dealing with executives.

Catch the missteps

For instance, see if you can pick out the missteps the safety and health manager makes in this imaginary, but fairly typical, dance, er, meeting, with an executive:

“Sorry I’m late. I was eating lunch when you called.”

“You have some tuna fish on your tie.”

“Oops. And this Goofy tie is one of my favorites. My daughter gave it to me…”

“Listen, how did we almost blow the roof off the plant this morning?”

“Well, we’re still investigating, but my best guess is it looks like we had a dust explosion.”

“Dust explosion? How the heck does dust explode?”

“Historically, the first recorded incidence of a dust explosion was at an Italian flour mill in 1785, although it was almost certainly not the first to occur. They are very common in the grain industry. We’ll have dust explosions as long as we’re eating sandwiches... you know, the flour…”

“But I want to know what happened this morning.”

“Just between you and me, I heard a couple of the guys say that powder from one of our resins had been piling up around that production line that’s been giving us fits. Somehow the dust dispersed in the atmosphere in a particle size distribution conducive to flame propagation.”

“Flame what?”

“Probably a spark from the repair work being done.”

“Aren’t our people trained to recognize dust hazards? What about housekeeping? What am I going to tell the mayor? Did we violate OSHA standards? What do I pay you for, anyway?”

“Ah, maybe you can tell the mayor that around 50 dust explosions are reported every year. Small deflagrations. Building detonations. These things seem to be happening more. Maintenance cuts, probably. What can you do? It’s a lousy economy, budgets are tight, we all know that.”

“I’m supposed to tell the mayor it was the U.S. economy’s fault?”

“Well, there is no specific OSHA standard for handling flammable dust in a factory. What do you want me to do? You try to find guidelines. There’s not a lot out there. Even the Chemical Safety Board says the dangers of explosive dust are not well known. I’m only one person…”

“OK. Take a deep breath. Now how are you going to fix this so it doesn’t happen again? And stop looking at your shoes when you talk.”

Upon further review

According to tips and recommendations from various media coaches, here’s where our safety manager could have done a better job:

Arrive on time. Early if you can.

Check a mirror on the way in. Appearance counts. Leave the Goofy tie in the closet if you know you’re addressing a roomful of dark suits. And if you’re going to have to think fast and be quick on your feet, forego the lasagna for lunch.

Limit the small talk. Know when it’s appropriate. And when to cut it off.

Don’t wing it. If you have advance notice, prepare for a line of questions like studying for an exam. Do your homework. Who will be attending, asking the questions? What are their priorities? Hot buttons? What’s the meeting agenda? Who else will be answering questions?

Don’t speculate. Stick to the facts. If all the facts aren’t in yet, say so.

Don’t preach or give history lectures. Even though you’re the expert and he’s not, don’t be one of those condescending know-it-alls.

Don’t trade in rumors and hearsay. Stick to what you know, no matter how much pressure you’re under to come up with an answer.

Go easy on the jargon.

When peppered with rapid-fire questions, a pregnant pause is OK before responding. Maybe your inquisitor will realize you can’t answer five questions at once.

Don’t make excuses. Play it straight.

If being honest means correcting the boss or delivering bad news, do it. If a previous audit noted dust accumulations and no action was taken, don’t wait for someone less friendly than you to make the point.

There is no such thing as “just between you, me and the lamp post.” Lamp posts always spring leaks after meetings adjourn. Someone says, “This doesn’t leave the room”? Everything leaves the room. Bank on it.

Stay cool, no matter how hot it gets. Easier said than done, sure. One media trainer suggests taking a bathroom break, if that helps break the tension.

Maintain that eye contact. And body posture. Confidence counts.

Transferable skills

These kinds of communication tips have almost universal application. Appropriate for job interviews, depositions, performance reviews, shareholder meetings, community open houses, closing conferences after OSHA inspections. Teenagers could use coaching before coming in late and trying to dance past a sleepy parent at the door. Limit the small talk. No excuses. No jargon (“I’m down with what you’re saying, Dad.”) Eye contact at this hour, though, is probably too much to ask for.

There is one more tip — the post-session critique. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill put it this way: “When I’ve known I was right and I was not able to win (apropos a teenager or rejected job applicant), I look at myself to try to figure out how I could have made a more persuasive case… It is a much more rewarding thing to try to figure out how you can improve your own persuasiveness and assembly of facts than to blame other people for making stupid decisions.”

That, after all, would put a lot of coaches out of business.